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Environment

Boston, North Adams Win Federal Funds to Heal Highway Blight

4:12 PM EST on March 1, 2023

A view of a downtown street lined withparked cars and historic 3-story brick buildings with a highway overpass crossing over the street in the middle distance. In the background are green hills below a blue sky.

State Street in downtown North Adams, with the Route 2 highway overpass in the middle distance. Beyond the highway are the historic mill buildings that house Mass MoCA. Courtesy of Google Street View.

A new federal program designed to "reconnect communities that are cut off from opportunity and burdened by past transportation infrastructure decisions" has awarded over $2 million to the cities of Boston and North Adams to address the blight and pollution of I-90 and Route 2, respectively.

The City of Boston will receive $1.8 million "to assess the feasibility of reconnecting the Chinatown neighborhood (that was)
separated by the construction of Interstate 90 in the 1960s. The project will develop a plan to connect across the open-cut highway by building an open space for the community and prepare design guidelines to link the surrounding streets," according to an announcement from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).

The construction of I-90 through Chinatown wasn't merely physically destructive: it was also a brutal act of state-sanctioned theft that destroyed huge amounts of wealth and social cohesion in a densely-populated immigrant neighborhood:

Aerial imagery of Boston's Chinatown neighborhood in 1952, before urban renewal, and in 1969, after the construction of the Central Artery. Imagery by USGS, courtesy of MapJunction.com
Aerial imagery of Boston's Chinatown neighborhood in 1952, before urban renewal, and in 1969, after the construction of the Central Artery. Imagery by USGS, courtesy of MapJunction.com
Aerial imagery of Boston's Chinatown neighborhood in 1952, before urban renewal, and in 1969, after the construction of the Central Artery. Imagery by USGS, courtesy of MapJunction.com

In her 2018 book People Before Highways, Dr. Karilyn Crockett interviewed a former Chinatown resident, Tunney Lee, who described how most of his neighbors along Hudson Street learned about the state’s plans for the new highway in the 1950s:

“When the turnpike took that part of Hudson Street, people got letters. The owners got letters in the mailbox saying your property is now owned by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Your rent is $50/month, please pay . . . And if you want a quick settlement we’ll give you the assessed value. If you don’t, you go to court and we’ll see you in court."

In the Berkshires, the City of North Adams also won a planning grant to study the future of the Route 2 overpass, an elevated highway viaduct that cuts off the city's Main Street district from one of its most popular tourism destinations, MassMoCA.

Though Route 2 is a relatively calm, 2-lane roadway through most of North Adams, the street inexplicably widens to a high-speed, 4-lane highway through four short blocks, about a third of a mile long, through the heart of the city's otherwise-walkable downtown.

"The Route 2 Overpass Study will analyze the flow of traffic and multimodal access and examine potential alternatives including redesign and the elimination of the overpass, returning Route 2 to grade level," according to the USDOT's grant announcement.

Last October, the Berkshire Eagle reported that Jenny Wright, Mass MoCA’s director of strategic communications and advancement, testified in a public meeting with North Adams Mayor Jennifer Macksey to urge the city to apply for the Reconnecting Communities funding.

“Removing the (Route 2) overpass, as recommended by that plan that was adopted by the city in 2014, is really the straightest line that connects our two dots. This is really the moment to think big about these kinds of things," Wright told the Commission.

In its grant announcements this week, the USDOT noted that the agency "received 435 applications from all over the country, requesting in total $2 billion in grant funding, more than 10 times the amount we have available."

The USDOT also released a list of grant applications that did not make the cut, including 7 from Massachusetts:

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